Kenya Faces Pushback on its Questionable War on Terror

An aerial view of the Ifo 2 refugee camp, part of the Dadaab complex administered by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. Dadaab, Kenya, October 29, 2014. (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

On April 2 this year, the Somalia-based jihadist group al-Shabaab attacked Kenya’s Garissa University College, killing 147 people. Nine days later, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto called on the United Nations to close the country’s Dadaab refugee complex, whose five camps hold an estimated 335,000 Somali refugees.

Kenyan officials have long regarded the camps as a site of radicalization, but the evidence refutes this. Most prominently, Human Rights Watch has found “no evidence to support [Ruto’s] claim” of a link between Dadaab and Garissa, or between refugees and insecurity in Kenya generally. Notably, at least one of al-Shabaab’s four gunmen at Garissa was Kenyan.

In making a misleading connection between Garissa and Dadaab, Ruto showed how strongly the Kenyan government has embraced the idea of collective punishment and the rhetoric of the global “war on terror.” Kenyan authorities have a debt to the administrations of United States presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and the way they have responded to terror threats against their own people. After the April attacks, Ruto went so far as to say “The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa,” suggesting that Kenya will strengthen security at home and take more aggressive actions beyond its borders.

The US and other Western powers have sometimes excused foreign governments’ harsh policies when those governments are partners in the global war on terror, and Kenya might have expected this trend to continue after Garissa. However, international pushback against the idea of closing Dadaab—including from the US and UN—forced Kenya to back down from its position earlier this month.

While Garissa was a turning point, Kenyan’s politics have long been influenced by the fight against terrorism—at least since the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania, and especially since 9/11. After-effects of these attacks have been visible in Kenya’s legislative arena, foreign policy, and relations between the government and Muslim communities.

In 2003, President Mwai Kibaki introduced the Suppression of Terrorism Bill in an attempt to address the threat, but critics said it went too far, discriminating against Muslims and undermining basic civil liberties. The bill was subsequently withdrawn in 2004, but successive governments have continued to push for stronger security legislation, partially in response to US and British criticism of what they considered to be Kenya’s lax security infrastructure.

In December 2014, current President Uhuru Kenyatta signed the Security Laws (Amendment) Act, which once again alarmed critics on civil liberties grounds and caused political division, so much so that lawmakers physically fought during parliamentary debate. Moreover, in a rare joint statement, nine Western governments questioned the bill on the eve of its passage and implied that it failed to respect human rights and Kenya’s constitution.

One controversial provision limited the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Kenya to 150,000—another sign of Kenyan authorities’ long-standing mistrust towards Dadaab. The controversies continued after Kenyatta’s signature: in February, Kenya’s High Court annulled eight clauses, including the contentious one about refugees. Debate over security legislation will likely continue, however, with refugees still featuring as central objects of attention.

The war on terror, in combination with regional politics, has also shaped Kenya’s involvement in Somalia. In October 2011, Kenya invaded the south of the country to fight al-Shabaab and project Kenyan influence. In June 2012, Kenya joined the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a multinational force that has retaken much territory from al-Shabaab. Kenya has contributed to AMISOM’s territorial success, but at the cost of increasing al-Shabaab attacks inside Kenya, including the bloodshed at Garissa and at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September 2013.

Kenya and al-Shabaab are now engaged in a cycle of violence: the militant group’s attacks in Kenya become justifications for Kenyan troops fighting inside Somalia, which in turn leads al-Shabaab to mount more attacks in Kenya. Kenyan leaders deploy war on terror rhetoric to discourage public reflection on this cycle. After Garissa, Kenyatta denied al-Shabaab was responding to perceived grievances, claiming they are instead “motivated to worship suicide and the murder of children by a tyrannical ideology that seeks to establish a Caliphate.”

This rhetoric obscures local histories of grievance, which al-Shabaab sought to employ in explaining its attack on Garissa. Such grievances do not justify al-Shabaab’s violence, but Kenyan authorities, taking rhetorical lessons from the US, are keen to portray terrorists as religious fanatics rather than political actors. Such rhetoric attempts to police the boundaries of what a conversation about terrorism can look like in Kenya, and to deflect criticism of Kenyan government policies.

Inside Kenya, the politics of the war on terror has included collective punishment against ethnic Somalis, who number at least 2.3 million in the country. The war on terror has brought mass crackdowns, especially in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi. For example, after attacks in Nairobi and the coastal city of Mombasa in March 2014, Kenyan authorities began arresting thousands of Somalis in Eastleigh and deporting dozens of them.

Kenyan authorities’ threat to close Dadaab should also be seen in this context: it is relatively easy to scapegoat ethnic Somalis in comparison with higher-cost and longer-term counter-terrorism measures. Yet observers, especially human rights groups, have long argued that collective punishment such as this is not only morally wrong, but also ineffective. Kenyatta’s reversal under international pressure, as well as the pressure itself, may indicate that war on terror rhetoric is losing some of its power in Kenya, and East Africa more broadly, and that Kenyans and outsiders alike are starting to question when and how this rhetoric is invoked.

For the time being, the US and other Western governments will likely continue to look to East African countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Burundi (a major contributor to AMISOM) as partners in the war on terror and the effort to stabilize Somalia. Yet some of the ways these countries have used war on terror rhetoric to justify questionable policies has begun to test the limits of tolerance.

In Ethiopia, the way that anti-terror legislation has been used to suppress journalists has led the US media to criticize its government’s uncritical support for that country. In Burundi, beleaguered President Pierre Nkurunziza has invoked the specter of al-Shabaab to dismiss opposition to his third term bid, which has led Washington itself to criticize his actions. Coupled with the Kenyan government’s reversal on Dadaab, these developments suggests the concept of the war on terror has less purchase in the region than it did a decade ago.